Gucci Mane has always been happy to absolutely fuck up our collective music-listening schedules. “Prolific” just isn’t a sufficient word anymore. I am not exaggerating for effect when I say that I’ve lost count of how many mixtapes he’s released in 2013, and I write that as a fan. And last week, when Gucci released his World War 3 troika of tapes — three mixtapes released simultaneously, each named after a different drug — it wasn’t even the first time he’d pulled this particular stunt; witness the 10/17/09 onslaught of Gucci’s “Cold War” trilogy (Guccimerica, Great Brrritian, and Brrrussia, two of which had the added benefit of Gucci’s cartoonish foreign accents). But those three mixtapes were all pretty half-baked, more an excuse to brag about dropping three mixtapes in a day than three mixtapes you’d want to hear more than once. By contrast, the collected World War 3 tapes house nearly 60 songs and three hours of music, and I’m not sure there’s a single bad song on any of them. Obviously, I’m still wrapping my head around this gigantic, ridiculous endeavor, but I haven’t stopped listening to any of it since he let it go.
If World War 3 has any sense of organization, it’s this: Each of the three tapes sticks with a particular production roster throughout. Zaytoven, C Note, and Mike Will handle Lean; Metro Boomin, Sonny Digital, and Dun Deal split the tracks on Molly, and the extended 808 Mafia crew are responsible for all of Gas. And thanks to that slight demarcation, it’s pretty safe to call Lean the best tape of the three, since Gucci’s chemistry with those three producers is the strongest, though all three tapes have great moments. Still, this thing is, more or less, a chaotic mess. Producers aren’t credited on individual tracks, and sometimes they don’t even come with the information of which rapper raps on which track. Some of the songs don’t have Gucci at all, and fidelity levels vary from one song to the next. I’ve heard at least a few of these tracks before, and others have presumably been sitting around the vault for a little while. (Gucci recently split completely with ex-protege Waka Flocka Flame, but Flocka appears a few times here, and Gucci says nice things about him on other songs.) Also, each piece of cover art is eye-bleedingly ugly; it’s hard to believe anyone okayed any of it.
But for all its disorder, the World War 3 mixtapes do present something of a united front. Lately, Gucci has been adding plenty of new faces to the roster of his 1017 Bricksquad crew: Teenage Chicago bruiser Chief Keef, yelping weirdo Young Thug, moody tough guy Young Scooter, solid role players Young Dolph and PeeWee Longway. All those guys show up in force here, as do simpatico allies like 2 Chainz, Future, French Montana, Travis Porter, and Migos. And even if it’s not the intent here, the assembled crew makes a powerful statement for the long-term creative viability of hard, focused street-rap. Gucci is an absolutely weird personality, and that weirdness manifests itself all sorts of different ways: Cadences, mushmouthed singsongy hooks, inexplicable word-choices, abrupt flow-shifts, out-of-nowhere bursts of Auto-Tune, face-tattoos, Harmony Korine supporting roles. And even he has nothing on a guy like Young Thug, who raps like he just woke up and discovered that his nose is on fire. On World War 3, these guys rap over sitars, over reporposed decade-old operatic Three 6 Mafia beats, over drumless synth-drones, over over coldly minimal all-snap 808 beats. And yet other than maybe the one moment where Gucci announces that he’s freakin’ and listening to the Weeknd, he never bashes you over the head with that weirdness; it’s just what happens when a guy like him wills himself into releasing way too much music all at once.
Gucci’s always been a sneaky rapper, one whose cleverest lines only occur to you after you’ve heard them a bunch of times, whose hooks you catch yourself chanting quietly in the shower. And when he releases a vast mountain of music like this, the only way to listen to it is to let it wash over you until little moments of brilliance leap out of the primordial soup and grab your attention. Consider, for example, “Birds Of A Feather,” on which Gucci pulls a Kendrick-on-“Control” and explicitly calls out every one of his peers, friend or foe: “I used to fuck with Gotti till he turned into a buster / I did a song with T.I. but the nigga still a sucker.” Or “So Much Money,” a gargling lament on which Gucci and Keef compete to see who can use the most Auto-Tune to turn their voices into inhuman sadness-fogs. But most of the best parts are the little moments where you do a quick double-take: “Wait, did he just say he’d smoke a Black & Mild and feed you to a crocodile?” That’s Gucci’s genius: The moments of ridiculously clever absurd virtuosity that express themselves in the form of boilerplate thug-rap, the tiny moments that you don’t notice for a while. And with this much music, that means there are many, many of these lines just sitting there, waiting to be noticed.